The Last Line of Defence

Time after time, the ruinous powers raise armies. Unstoppable hordes, filled not just with depraved and violent men, but with abominations. Hideous, malformed beasts; legions of the dead; scaled and furred monstrosities that tower over the battlefield.

Obviously, there is opposition. Last alliances of doomed races, the shining heroes of great civilizations, even the pitchfork-wielding ranks of peasants called to defend their fields. It’s not enough though. It’s never enough.

Time after time, the forces of darkness sweep across the sunlit lands. They burn and despoil everything in their way. They topple kingdoms, slaughter entire races, burn ancient forests. They cut a swathe of destruction through to the base of the mountain.

And then they climb the mountain. Not all of them – only the bravest, the strongest, the most powerful. The crazed horde is left below; their role is over.

At the top of the mountain is the key. Carved into stone by some ancient hand, the secret that will finally free the darkness fully, allow all that is evil to take physical form and despoil the world. Whichever champion of the shadow reads that secret will be elevated to untold heights by the favour of their unchained god.

And so they climb. Dark priest and chaos warlord, undying wizard and shadow-given-flesh. Those who have led armies through the heart of the world, across a hundred ruined kingdoms. They climb the mountain for the ultimate reward.

At the top, there is one man. He sits on a step, for he has been there a long time, and standing taxes his knees. His beard – grey and scraggly – trails along the ground, disturbing the fine, white sand as it moves. He looks at them – at these corrupted beings whose mere presence despoils the ground, fouls the air. He looks at them with yellow-rimmed eyes set in wrinkled cheeks.

Behind him is the slab. Script can be seen curling across it, but not read. Not at this distance. To read the script, they have to be closer. And the old man stands – sits – in the way.

He doesn’t say anything. He simply sits and watches. His right hand holds the leather-bound hilt of the rusting sword across his lap. His shoulders move, slowly, up and down with the effort of breathing the thin air.

Typically, the scions of darkness start forwards. Some ready a blade, or set dark lightning flickering round their fingertips. Whatever their chosen weapon, they raise it to destroy him.

And then they pause.

They think.

They look around them, at the empty mountain top, at the fulfilment of their dreams. At the old, old man holding a battered sword.

Just a few short steps, across white sand and grey rock. A few short steps to the slab. A few short steps past an old man. With a sword.

An old man sitting very calmly, not even speaking. An old man who seems unimpressed by their fiendish presence, aura of power, or immense stature.

They think. They think about how an old man could even get here, up the dangerous climb through thinning air. They think about the empty mountain top, with no food or shelter. Just the old man, the sword, and the slab.

They take another step. Raise their blade, begin the intonation. They ready themselves to sweep aside this last, pathetic obstacle. The old man doesn’t move.

They pause again. They wonder how long he has been here, what he has seen. They wonder about the fine, white sand that covers the summit. They wonder how the sword came to be quite so battered.

They walk away.

The generals of chaos return down the mountain, and lead their hordes away from civilised lands. They do not speak of the mountain top. Mortals rebuild after the horde departs – they always do. Society flourishes again, until the next horde sweeps across the sunlit lands, led by a new monstrosity.

The old man sits on the mountain top, his sword across his knees. Perhaps he smiles.

This story was written in response to this prompt, based on this picture by Alexander Komarov, who does similar things you might be interested in.

As always, comments and criticism are welcome.

More stories.



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